Comedies are rarely viable Oscar contenders. But what about the funny, emotional love story of a bipolar ex-teacher with anger management issues who meets a young, loner-Goth widow in a Philadelphia suburb and starts pair dancing with her as a way of them both grappling toward self-improvement? David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper as bipolar Pat and Jennifer Lawrence as widow Tiffany — along with Robert DeNiro as Pat’s OCD, Eagles-obsessed dad; Jacki Weaver as Pat’s harried mother; and Chris Tucker as his best buddy from the mental ward — has become the awards darling no one really saw coming. At the Toronto Film Festival, it won the People’s Choice Award (which has gone to other movies that took the awards circuit by surprise, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech) over the flashier debuts of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Ben Affleck’s Argo. Russell, wearing his trademark directors’ uniform of a sweater, black-framed glasses, and blindingly white sneakers, seemed in high spirits at Silver Linings’ New York premiere at The Ziegfeld and The Royalton last night. Jada Yuan spoke to him about the film’s climactic dance sequence, his reading habits, and what it’s like to work with the heroine of The Hunger Games.
Have you been aspiring to do a dance sequence in a movie for a while?
I did a dance sequence in my second short film, which was my best short film, called Hairway to the Stars, and I think Chris Wink, the founder of Blue Man Group, was in that. It’s a black-and-white dance sequence. We were Glorious Food waiters together.
Glorious Food waiters? Do you know what Glorious Food is? It’s the caterer to all the fancy people, so, you know, we would be in the home of Jaqueline Onassis or the home of — you name it, we were there.
So you did this in your short film.
My second short film. I made three short films.
And how did the Silver Linings dance sequence compare to your first one?
Um, this one is more emotionally rooted. I think it’s more about the characters and the story. To me, the dancing is an unexpected part of the story that should sneak up on you and the characters themselves should be saying, “Get out of town! Not this!” I like that [Pat]’s saying all the time: “I’m not doing this shit.” But I like that he then ends up slowly getting dragged into it. Jennifer and Bradley got to know each other very fast by sweating and dancing every day for two weeks, and that was good for them.
In terms of how you directed that, do you get in there? Are you actually dancing with them?
You know, it’s weird, it’s awkward. You do have to convey to the choreographer what you want it to be like, you know, because I didn’t want it to be like a fancy dance thing. I had a very specific idea of what I wanted it to be like. So you show them the energy and the music of what you want it to be like and exactly how complicated you want it to get and how soulful and amateurish you want it to be. It’s very specific. I love it when you show up and you see those other people [the dancers they are competing against] and you’re like, “Jesus Christ!” They’re like thoroughbred racehorses from Churchill Downs or something, those other people. They’re all from Belarus! I’d say to them, “Where are you from?” What, do they grow dancers in Belarus? They’re like professional athletes, those people. No American could have that discipline, I’m convinced.
You actually recruited dancers from Belarus?
Our choreographer Mandy Moore, not the actress, has done Dancing with the Stars competitions locally in Colorado with farmers and doctors, so she knew how to do this and she found these people.
She’s on So You Think You Can Dance.
Yes, you did your research.
Or just watch a lot of TV. Were you demonstrating moves for them?
I’m telling you, I have a handful of them. You know what I’m saying? I have a handful of moves.
Like the Running Man? The Shopping Cart?
What’s the Shopping Cart? Show it to me.
It’s like you’re going down the aisle getting your groceries. [We demonstrate.]
That’s a good one! I am now going to do that one. I did not know that one. No, I have some weird mash-up of jitterbug, swing dancing, and waltz. And punk! All these things end up in their bipolar dance. I’m a big twirler. I’ve had, like, five moves since college. Those are the moves. If you do them with authority, they’re very convincing. It’s all about how authoritative you are.
Julie Taymor was at your special screening last night.
Oh my god, that was so exciting. And my high school English teacher, who then became the dance teacher after I left, which was good, because I never would have known her if she was a dance teacher when I was there. And then for her to meet Julie Taymor … she was the Julie Taymor of our high school.
But she didn’t teach you dance in high school.
No, because when I graduated, she switched from English to dance. It turned out she hated English. I was her last year of English.
What did Julie Taymor say about the dancing?
She said, all I know is it made me … It meant a lot to me that she said, with a big, beaming, warm smile from the heart, that she loved it. And that meant everything to me, that she felt it. Call her yourself!
Jennifer Lawrence told me you made her gain weight. For any reason?
I didn’t MAKE her gain weight. [rolls eyes] Listen, she showed up and she had been starved from The Hunger Games — pun intended — and also from X-Men, and I could tell. She looked different. And I said, “What are you doing? Your girl is a regular girl who lives next door. Eat! Be a regular girl. You’re beautiful. Just eat.” And she said, “Thank you!” She ordered a Philly cheesesteak and she was very happy. She would dig around … I have a food bag and she’d come around and eat out of the food bag every day, and say, “Why do you have Newman Oreos? Why don’t you have real Oreos?” I’d say, “Because I’m not from Louisville.”
She was critical of your food choices.
She has her opinions. She’s entitled to her opinions. She does not like the vinegar potato chips. She likes the regular Lays potato chips. I wouldn’t waste my time. If I’m going to waste my time with those calories, it’s going vinegar potato chips. Or it’s going to be chocolate. Why am I going to waste those calories on some nonsense Lays potato chips? [laughs]
She said she didn’t think to ask you about The Hunger Games, but she’d like me to quiz you.
Oh, I told her what I think. I love The Hunger Games. Hey, Jane! [spots Jane Rosenthal, waves her over] You know Jane? I found it a truly disturbing film. I thought it was frighteningly close to our reality, where Stanley Tucci’s making an audience laugh and saying, “How did it feel when you were chosen … to die for your district? Ha ha ha ha ha!” [maniacal laughter] It was really creepy, and we’re this far away from that happening. I would say maybe next decade we’re going to see that on True network or FX or something.
Even in the Obama presidency?
Oh, thank god! That will forestall it. But Fox News is going to have to make their movie somehow.
Did you read the books?
Nooooo! I don’t read novels.
What about the books Bradley Cooper reads in the movie from his ex-wife’s high school syllabus?
This is a high school syllabus. That was the last time I read novels! Was A Farewell to Arms, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies. Part of me was like, “Is this dated?” I mean, do kids just read The Hunger Games now, because that to me was the cannon, and when she did the summary of Lord of the Flies, I was like, “I hope to hell kids still know what that is.”
Jane Rosenthal: No, they do! They do! They read that. By the way, I had to write a book report on Lord of the Flies because my kid just didn’t finish it, as well as Catcher in the Rye.
David: Oh good! The Internet hasn’t destroyed all literature.
Is your knowledge of The Hunger Games vast now?
No, I watched the movie and I talked to her about shooting a bow and arrow and I tease her about, you know, kicking people’s asses.
How would you survive the arena?
Oh, I’d just team up with Jen and say, “Go to work. I’ll be right behind you.”